Agenda: Salute John Cairney, a man for all seasons

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By Brian McGeachan

“IF Rabbie came back today would he hold a John Cairney supper?”

The question was posed by novelist Gordon Williams who, despite hailing from Paisley, was an accomplished wit.

Actor John Cairney is the finest incarnation of Robert Burns. Perhaps of any human being. Possibly of all time.

John is also his own man. Delightful company and a sparkling conversationalist.

John Cairney will be 91 next month. Is it too late for Holyrood to convene a committee and bestow an honour? Indeed, why hasn’t he already been awarded a bauble for his contributions to our arts and literature?

Did you know 15 books bear his name? He’s also exhibited his paintings throughout the country. The one thing he seems not to have mastered is the good grace to fail at something.

JC is even too damn handsome not to provoke envy. The first time I interviewed him our newspaper receptionist Janette suffered a near faint when he walked through the door. Janette had joined the throng who queued round the Citizens Theatre to watch him play Hamlet in the 60s.

On one visit to “Chez Cairney”, he did share his theory on why he’d been overlooked for an honour.

He showed me the front page of The . (His choice of newspaper is impeccable.) Alan Cumming had been given a gong that day.

In the 1970s Princess Margaret asked Secretary of State Willie Ross to facilitate a lunch date with John. By Royal Appointment, so to speak. By dessert the flirty princess was “playing footsie” with our hero. Perhaps she expected him to play the part of Rabbie to the full?

JC being married and a good Roman Catholic, resisted the overtures. He had no intention of allowing Princess Margaret to . . .well, exercise the royal prerogative. Did this act of personal integrity put the kibosh on any plans from the palace? I think we should be told.

I undertook research for JC on two of his books. One on his favourite footballer, Jimmy McGrory. Another on his favourite city: Glasgow.

In Glasgow By the Way he sums up his city perfectly: “Here is the bird that never flew. Here is the tree that never grew. Here is the bell that never rang. Here is the fish that never swam. That’s Glasgow. Awkward from the start!”

One year before his 80th birthday I suggested I write a biography of JC. Negotiations on the contract were reminiscent of Reagan and Gorbachev’s nuke talks at Reykjavik. When talks broke down our friendship cooled considerably. Froze to an artic frost, in fact.

In time, the ice thawed.

He attended the premier of my stage play The Johnny Thomson Story at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre. He bestowed a personal benediction on me on the theatre steps. “Kid,” he smiled, “You made us weep in there.”

That’s John. Class in abundance and style to spare. Scotland’s James Mason.

Who needs a knighthood? The man who played Burns is a man for all seasons.

JC? I remain a fan. My number is in the phone book.

Brian McGeachan is an author and playwright

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